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Tanker Wars, Part Deux

Northrop Grumman, breaking its puzzling quietude of the last several months, has come out swinging in the tanker wars.

First, the CEO of Northrop Grumman's partner EADS came out swinging during a media presentation. CEO Louis Gallois told reporters during an embargoed presentation on Saturday that "we are not losing the tanker deal. We have the best airplane and I am sure the U.S. Air Force will buy the best airplane."

Then, after a Sunday night strategy meeting, Northrop Grumman decided to put out a press release declaring "it is ready now" to build tankers and fly them well before Boeing could put planes in the air. "The first two SDD airframes have been built and flown, and are awaiting modification to the tanker configuration," the company said.

"As we've always said, Northrop Grumman is ready now; and having all four SDD airframes ready next year shows our commitment to the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense and our Airmen who are currently forced to fly 50-year-old tankers," said Paul Meyer, Northrop Grumman vice president and general manager of Air Mobility Systems. On the other hand, Meyer said, "our competitor still has not built the tanker or boom system they offered - our configuration is built, tested and flying now - and has been selected by four other allied nations. Clearly our tanker is superior, offering better fuel efficiency, greater fuel offload and much lower risk. It's won all five competitions against the 767."

Then came a shot at Boeing's claims that American jobs will be lost if Northrop Grumman is selected to build the tanker: "While other companies continue to move manufacturing offshore, Northrop Grumman's tanker assembly and modification approach reverses that trend, creating 48,000 aerospace jobs in 49 states and bringing a significant amount of work share into the United States." Those numbers are sure to attract the attention of lawmakers always eager to aid companies located in their districts.

One major issue that Northrop has been reluctant to discuss publicly is that its plane will operate according to a very different concept of operations from the Boeing plane. The KC-45 would hang well back of front lines, behind layers of fighters, and refuel planes as needed, according to a source familiar with the issue.

One key difference between the Boeing approach and the Northrop approach is that the Northrop plane is designed to be refueled by another tanker. The Air Force, our source said, is eager to save fuel by having planes land with tanks as empty as possible. Keeping a large tanker in the air for extended periods of time -- up to several days is theoretically possible, with 18 hours as the likely limit to operations --allows the Air Force greater flexibility.

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